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SOME DANGERS IN ACCEPTING AFRICAN TRADITIONS

by Gervas Clay

Once time there was a white man in South Africa who set out to visit many of the peoples in Southern and Central Africa and to preach to them a new kind of religion. For over 30 years he wandered about from tribe to tribe. Although he spoke one African language he did not speak it particularly well and was not always able to make himself understood by the Chiefs. As he spent part of his time trying to heal people with new-fangled remedies, he was obviously a magician and probably came down from Heaven with the rain.
One of the first tribes he visited was the Makololo under their famous war leader Sebitwane. Sebitwane himself belonged to the Basuto nation and had fought his way through what is now Bechuanaland as far as the Zambezi River where he settled down among the Barotse. Early on in his wanderings Sebitwane attacked a village where the visiting white can was staying. The latter was so indignant at the pillage that was going on that he rushed out with a sjambok in his hand and seeing a man crawling out of the one of the huts he brought down several blows on his back, which made the blood start and raised weals It turned out that this man was Sebitwane and he stood up, seized the white man by his hair and threw him down. However, when his people ran up and were about to stab him with spears, Sebitwane interposed and ordered them to let him go as he was a stranger and a white man. He then turned to the white can and said, "You have courage, you are a brave man. Never before has any one dared to strike me." They then exchanged presents and seven years later when they met on the Zambezi they laughed and joked together over this incident. "You are strong", said the white man, "to have taken me by the hair and thrown me down'. And Sobitwore showed him the scar on his back and said, “And you are a famous warrior to attack Sebitwane all alone, who has conquered so many tribes.  Look at this mark: You are the only one who has ever beaten me.”
During this visit to Linyanti on the Chobe River near its junction with the Zambezi, Sebitwane borrowed the white man's horse and insisted on riding it against the white man's advice. The latter said, "You are full of human blood (i.e. a man who has shed blood) and you will die." This bewitched Sebitwane who had a fall and died of the consequences.
Some of the words of his preaching to the Makololo have also come down to us. "You people of the Makolololo", he said, "you great men and warriors, I tell you all you are not great men.You are bad and mean. You are not content with living in your own houses and hoeing your own gardons, but you go and attack weak people, and kill them. You see children hoeing the gardens of their mothers, and you take them prisoners. You see men hunting their own food, and herding their oxen, and you kill them. This is very bad. This is a great evil. The Evangelia has gone into all the world to teach men that to be great is to be good." It seems that the Evangelia was the name of a person. Later on, after this white man had passed through the country he sent some of his friends to Sebitwane’s son Sekeletu at Linyanti. Sekeletu and his people were terrified thinking that as Sebitwane had been killed by the white man's medicine, his friends might kill them. However, the friends consisting of two white families with a number of children soon sickened of malaria and began to die one after the other. As soon as they began to die the Makololo realised that their medicine was not as strong as that of their friend and began to extort from them most of their goods before they would allow the survivors to go back to the South. Not very long afterwards the original white man returned and spoke to them with great indignation, "You have killed and plundered the servants of God whom you invited to your country, and the Judgement of God will fall on you" This prophecy was speedily fulfilled for on the death of Sekeletu the Makololo began to quarrel among themselves and the Barotse returned from the north and massacred the Makololo to a man. The Bechuanas and Bamangwetos have often said since, "Where are now the powerful Makololo; has not God avenged the death of His servants?'…
Of the white man's successes in preaching to the Africans we are told that, "Previous to his last arrival amongst them, when told that he was coming, the first question they asked was, 'What is he coming to do? - to bring guns?' ‘No; the Book.' 'Well, then, he had better stay away; his God has killed us.' Sebitwane's doctors attribute the Chief's death to the white men coming amongst them, and whenever (the white man) preaches in the presence of or visits a chief, the doctors burn something as charm to protect them from his witchcraft. Being, as they find, a doctor, he has also the reputation of being a wizard. This makes him either feared or admired, and gives him a certain influence. They give him credit for being a good doctor, and say he has cured many, but killed some natives. They do not believe in natural deaths; when a man dies he has been killed. By all accounts the doctor's preaching is barely tolerated by the chief, who is at heart highly displeased at his doctrines concerning rain and polygamy. (The white man's) servant) Suyman, a man of colour, told us that when his master preached an eloquent sermon against polygamy, ending with a hymn, Sekeletu would collect all the young girls in the town, and make them wind up with dance.
"The people say that (the white man) has promised them all the good things of the earth, rain, corn, cattle, etc., if they would believe in God and refrain from polygamy, slavery and other malpractices; that they have waited a long time for these good things; and that they would wait another year to see if the Good Man he talked about helped them nicely. While they were relating these things, and conversation grew slack, the councilor Poonoani was observed sitting with a piece of newspaper upside down, mimicking the white man singing a hymn. The natives call psalm-singing Bokolella (to bellow like a bull), and observing that he had attracted our attention, he rolled over on his back, threw his feet into the air, and explained, bursting out into a loud laugh of ridicule, “Minari” (a corruption of the Dutch mynheer, generally applied to missionaries).
There are many stories of the extraordinary things that this white man was able to do. He was fine and tall and the best hunter ever known. *Are you hungry?" he would ask the first-comer. "Yes". 'What would you like - a buffalo quarter?' The white man would shoulder his gun, and instantly knock down a buffalo grazing at an incredible distance, give up the meat to him who had asked it, and pass on. Did he travel by canoe? "If you are hungry,” he would say to his paddlers, "well, tell me when we pass a village." He would then buy pots of curded milk, beer, etc; his people ate their fill and the rest was left for those who had sold it. Did he want a fat ox? When it was brought he would ask, What do you think, my friends, is that what we want?' "Yes, ngaka (doctor)" He took his gun and despatched it. "Now, what do you want for the beast?" The bargain ended and the price paid, he would take the piece he chose, and leave the rest, with the akin, to the proprietor.
He was particularly friendly to old men. He would call them and talk to them, asking all sorts of questions, and send them away with presents. If he saw cattle-herds or girls at work, he gathered them round him, and sent them away always with presents. Thus he opened a way for himself, even among the tribes that seemed most hostile. Sometimes on seeing him they would rush on him with threats that terrified his companions. He kept silence, let the thunder roll by, and once it had ceased, he talked, chatted, distributed packets of beads and bits of stuff; and the people, full of enthusiasm, would go home and bring out bread, curds, beer; and the white man want on. The old people that travelled with him used to say that he was not a man like any other but a God.
Here are some of the wonderful things he used to do. He took wings and flew down to the bottom of the chasm of the Victoria Falls; he could raise the dead and make spirits to appear; he brought up the nations of the earth, and made them pass through a little hole before their eyes; he showed his relatives and the spirits of his forefathers walking across the shadow of the sun; he could light gunpowder on a man's hand by means of a little glass; he had a dish of water into which he looked and read instructions as to the road before him. It was commonly said in Nyasaland that thin white man disappeared into Lake Nyasa whence he had come and on one occasion two small boys of about 10 years old hid themselves in the reeds to see if this was true. They found that he did not do this but he petrified them by taking something in his hand, dipping it into the water and rubbing his head until the brains came out.
He could also be fierce and determined to get his way. Not long before he died he arrived at the village of a small chief near Lake Bangweolo and asked for canoes to cross the Lake. The chief refused. The white man took out his revolver and fired a shot past the chief's right ear, reiterating his demand for canoes. The white can then fired past the chief's left ear. When the chief still refused he pointed at the middle of his forehead; 'Now do you still refuse', he said. Telling the story many years later, the chief used to say that he decided it was wiser to let the white man have the canoes.

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You will no doubt have guessed that these stories were told about the great missionary explorer Dr. David Livingstone. They were, all of them recorded in the first 50 years after his death by other Europeans who took down what the Africans remembered about him. We have, of course, two books written by David Livingstone himself and one edited by Waller after his death, from his own last journals. We are, therefore, in a position to compare what he himself records that he did, with oral tradition collected afterwards from those who had seen him. No attempt les been made to collect modern traditions about Livingstone because they would not be of any particular value, since every African schoolboy today learns something about the great man's life and any oral traditions collected world be coloured by written evidence in schoolboy textbooks.
It must be remembered that although some of the people Livingstone visited had heard of a white race before, almost none of them had ever seen a white man. Very many tribes had never even heard of one.
It is interesting to note that Livingstone vas regarded as a God and was thought to have come from Heaven with the rain. He was thought to be a God because he was more than a man. This means that he had an exceptional character and used many techniques unknown previously in this part of Africa. In very many tribal histories the royal family of the tribe is said to be descended from the Gods and it seems quite possible that, at least in the majority of cases, this is because a highly enlightened African from a tribe with well-developed institutions has been driven out or had to flee to a tribe in a much more primitive state. In such cases also, such a man becomes regarded as a God and we have an example of the mental processes involved in the case of David Livingstone.
The first part of this paper has set out David Livingstone's history as recorded by oral tradition. We are able to compare this oral tradition directly with the written records of David Livingstone himself and his contemporaries. We began with a story concerning Sebitwane and an assault upon him by Livingstone. This story was never recorded by Livingstone himself and we are left without any certain knowledge as to whether it is true or false. We then have some of the wordse he used when preaching and having regard to the exceptional memories that many Africans have, it seem likely that this is a reasonable record of the sort of sermon that Livingstone did in fact preach. It should perhaps be noted that the Evangelia are the Gospels.
The story concerning the councilor Poonoani taking off the great man and mimicking his singing hymns and praying are recorded by a contemporary of Livingstone, Chapman, who was not in fact himself a missionary, and would therefore not have been shocked as missionaries would have been by this poking fun at Livingstone's missionary activities. It seems highly likely that Sekeletu did in fact barely tolerate Livingstone preaching concerning polygamy and rain, but as his father Sebitwane had died on Livingstone's previous visit it is very probable that Sekeletu regarded Livingstone as a high-powered witchdocter, and was too frightened to try and stop his activities.
The story of his shooting and the way in which he provided foot for his party is of interest. Although a few muzzle-loading guns had already come into the country, Livingstone’s heavy rifles with their long range and stopping power would have been something new to the experience of the African, and this power and this accuracy would also have been duly exaggerated. The fact that without walking far he could in those days slaughter a number of confiding animals and give their meat to his own people and to local villagers would make his generosity noteworthy and stories of his prowess would be handed down accordingly.
The story of his particular friendship to older men is explained because it was from them that he would be noting, not only the physical features of the more distant parts of the country but also the tribal histories which he so often recorded.
It is when we come to the list of wonderful things he used to do that we realise how dangerous blind acceptance of oral tradition may be. If we had not Livingstone's own account of his doings and if we had no knowledge of the techniques he used it would indeed be difficult to interpret the stories which were passed down among the tribes of Central Africa. When it is recorded that he took wings and flew down to the bottom of the chasm of the Victoria Falls, the incident is based in the fact that he let down a weighted line with a piece of paper attached in order to see the end of the line better. That he brought up the nations of the earth and made them pass through a little hole before their eyes and that he showed his relatives and the spirits of his forefathers walking across the shadow of the sun, are stories based on the use of the magic lantern, while the dish of water into which he looked and read instructions as to the road referred to his use of the compass. Lastly his use of soap for washing his hair is recorded as his having dipped something into water and rubbed it on his head until the brains came out. The last story recorded, about the demand for canoes to cross Lake Bangweolo, has also not been recorded by Livingstone, but it was not the sort of story he would wish to record and it does seem quite likely that it actually took place.
To revert to the wonderful things he need to do, it is, of course, common-place to say that these matters were the record made by simple people in homely terms of things beyond their comprehension. Throughout African tribal histories one comes across such records of 'wonderful things'. In the case of Livingstone it is easy to know to what reference is made by referring to his own written records and because the techniques he used are today common-place. But when one is faced with tribal oral traditions describing wonderful things one is constantly left with the impression that what we should record as the natural is being explained in terms of the super natural and that many of the extra¬ordinary stories told have probably a perfectly common sense and natural explanation behind them but one that that we should almost certainly never be able to guess. It is, therefore, imperative that such apparently super natural events should be recorded but that it can no longer be considered as proving the intervention of the super natural but only assuring that something exceptional occurred which almost certainly has a natural explanation.
There are, of course, many apparent dangers in accepting written accounts of historical matters but the present day tendencies to reject anything that has ever been written as being almost certainly biased, and accepting oral traditions as gospel truth presents grave dangers for the historian. It is hoped that the first part of this paper has demonstrated some of the dangers in recording the life of the great missionary explorer as it would have gone down to history if reliance had been placed solely on oral African tradition.

 

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